For teens across the U.S., it is swimsuit season. For those on the coasts, it plays out on sand and surf. For those in land-locked states, there is a tacit hierarchy of options. In the Colorado of my adolescence, these ranged from a cloud-free day at Water World to afternoons in private pools, from adventures in nearby lakes to the never disappointing water fight.
For most adolescents, none of these options is without its merits. But, for all, swimsuit season is a heightened time of exposure: not only to the sun, but also to perplexing concerns about diet, nutrition, and body image. For some, it is a sobering moment of truth when the struggle of the family food fight outweighs the joys of a friendly water fight.
The statistics have become an unpopular refrain to a story that haunts homes across the nation. More than a third of American children are overweight, with nearly a fifth qualifying as obese. They are not alone: 40% of British children are overweight. These numbers should be staggering to consider, especially given that if a high school student is overweight, they have a 20% chance of slimming down as adults and avoiding a host of preventable ills.
In our offices in London, we have been taking a closer look at the world of childhood and adolescent obesity. In our recent Truth About Wellness study, we asked our respondents to rank the needs of their children under 12. From the U.S. to China, the highest ranking need was a balanced diet, outranking sleep, quality time, and even education.
And, it’s not just children who are in need. Globally, three out of four of our respondents agreed that an improvement in diet would eradicate many of the world’s health problems. Unfortunately, only half of those parents were able to agree that, “I know the best food to give to my kids and my family.” Moreover, one in five respondents -- both with and without children -- claimed that “mealtime was a battle in their head.”
Indeed, ambiguities about what constitutes healthy food, diet, or balance confuse the issue. For instance, in ethnographic research, we encountered an urban farming family that aggressively pursued a diet of minimally processed foods. During a trip to a local grocery store, the “radical homemaker” exposed her confusion when reading the ingredients on the package: “Why do I need a chemistry degree to buy bread? Is bread processed? Or, is it just bread from the bakery?”
While our research has not yet led us to an oracle that will answer her questions, we have focused on a naked truth about the family food fight: children are most deeply socialized into how and what they will eat by their parents, confused or not. Exemplified best by a family of modest means in Casablanca, Morocco: The son, like his father, ate hardly anything, while the daughter ate everything on her plate. Only half her brother’s age, she was nearly the same size – a sign that she, like her mother, risks obesity in the future.
As we show in Truth About Moms, moms everywhere embrace brands and companies that clear up confusion. Whether through tactical downstream tools that assist mothers to decipher complex scientific nutrition labels or strategic upstream strategies that enable a holistic view of the sustainable self, swimsuit season would be a lot less perplexing and a lot more fun were it to come without a battle at meal times or in the changing room. This is a clarion call for brands and companies to play a pioneering role.